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Jeff Nichols: Keeping ORNL on top of the computing world

Jeff Nichols leads ORNL’s Computing and Computational Sciences Directorate, home to the nation’s fastest supercomputer, the laboratory’s Artificial Intelligence Initiative and the multi-institutional Quantum Science Center.

The directorate includes DOE’s National Center for Computational Sciences, site of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility. The OLCF delivers transformational scientific research and technological breakthroughs to confront some of the most pressing challenges of the modern era, from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change to the design of next-generation nuclear power plants.

The OLCF is also home to Summit, the nation's most powerful supercomputer, and will soon host Frontier, which is on track to be the world’s first exascale supercomputer, capable of a billion billion calculations each second.

But science is never static, and Nichols is ensuring ORNL remains a global leader by growing programs in quantum computing and networking and evolving the lab’s computational portfolio to accommodate the coming data revolution. He is also committed to connecting the lab’s experimental facilities with its in-house data analysis capabilities and harnessing the power of artificial intelligence to enable self-driving experiments.

Nichols has led the directorate since 2009. He previously served as deputy associate laboratory director, director of the Computer Science and Mathematics Division and acting director of the NCCS. In those roles, he oversaw the building, installation and deployment of Summit and its predecessors, Titan and Jaguar — each a world leader in high-speed computing — along with supercomputing projects for such clients as the National Science Foundation and DOE.

Prior to joining ORNL in 2002, Nichols was deputy director of the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where he oversaw development, deployment and use of scalable computational science codes to solve grand challenge problems.

Nichols earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Texas A&M University and bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and mathematics from Malone College in Canton, Ohio. He has more than a quarter-century of experience as a theoretical chemist and software developer and has written or co-written four software applications and more than 60 research papers.

When he’s not advancing the state of the art in computing or blazing new trails in data and next-generation technologies, he enjoys gardening (he recently purchased a greenhouse), cheering on his beloved Michigan Wolverines and playing piano and singing. — Matt Lakin